Talk About Timing: An Opera Series Based on People Trying to Escape the Black Death

The inspiration for a collaboration during our present day pandemic.
The inspiration for a collaboration during our present day pandemic. Poster art

The 14th Century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a series of novellas entitled The Decameron about seven women and three men trying to escape the Black Death by sheltering in a remote location.

Turns out Opera in the Heights and eight other regional opera companies in a newly formed coalition found this a dandy jumping off point for an online opera series entitled Tales from a Safe Distance beginning this October. And before you ask if this subject matter selection was on purpose as we all continue to struggle with lives in the shadow of the coronavirus — it was.

Love, tragedy, the ever present threat of death — pretty much the building blocks of serious opera are all there in this modernized version of Boccaccio's work.  Opera in the Heights plans to film its segment at the Sara's Bed & Breakfast Inn in the Heights Inn with mezzo soprano and resident artist Kaarin Cecilia Phelps taking on the role of Elena with accompanied by fellow resident artist Laura Bleakley on piano. There will also be electronics by Donia Jarrar the composer and librettist of the piece. Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Opera in the Heights Eiki Isomura, acted as producer and music director while Abbas Padilla was the film director.

The episode that Opera in the Heights is presenting — "Seven Spells — was inspired by the Eighth Day, Seventh Story in the original series. In that version, a beautiful woman named Elena leads on a suitor, manipulates and humiliates him and the man issues payback. He offers to help her get back together with a former lover, telling her she needs to recite seven incantations at the top of a tower.  She goes there, gets stuck because he removes the ladder to get down and ends up sunburned and bitten by bugs.

In the modern version, instead of everyone quarantining in the same villa, they are all apart in their own residences, Isomura said. "They are on a Zoom call together and reconnecting. Each of them share stories to entertain themselves." Elena ends up on a dating site and teases one man who is then determined to shame her and destroy her reputation. "There won't a tower in this one so much as we tend to put beautiful women on a pedestal only to debase the and shame them for being beautiful, Isomura explained.

"It's written for one singer. It will feel like a concert aria almost," Isomura said. "We're going to present it in sort of a music video format."  Each weekend two or three episodes will be presented, hosted by Luca Pisaroni, the renowned bass-baritone known for his performances around the world including at the Metropolitan Opera.

"I really like that this project," Isomura said. "It sort of speaks to and reflects the present moment really well in that we're all separated from one another and this project takes that separation and not only makes it the premise but makes it our competitive advantage that we have all of these companies working together in a way that we'd never have thought to were it not for the shutdown.

"I'm glad that we're able to make art that could only have come from the present moment," Isomura said. "It's also an important way for all of our companies to stay connected with all of our patrons at a time when it still isn't safe to assemble in person for live events, certainly not in the normal format we're accustomed to."

The weekly release schedule for Tales from a Safe Distance:

Episode 1:
Both Gladsome and Grievous - October 9, 2020
“The Happy Hour” (Introduction)
“Everything Comes to a Head” (Lyric Opera of the North)
“The Late Walk” (Bare Opera)

Episode 2:
Prompted by Appetite - October 16, 2020
“Dinner 4 3” (Fargo-Moorhead Opera)
“The Roost” (UrbanArias)

Episode 3:
So Noble a Heart - October 23, 2020
“Orsa Ibernata” (Milwaukee Opera Theatre)
“Seven Spells” (Opera in the Heights)
“The Sky Where You Are” (An Opera Theatre)

Episode 4:
The Bolts of Fortune - October 30, 2020
“Sourdough: Rise Up” (Resonance Works)
“Corsair” (Chicago Fringe Opera)
“The Happy Hour” (Finale)

For more information visit the Decameron Opera Coalition website. $15 for all four episodes.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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